Just two days before this year’s election, when it was clear there would be a Republican wave, the New York Times ran an op-ed that called for the abolition of midterm elections.
Written by a college professor and one of his students, the piece was couched as being in favor of democracy because midterms have notoriously low voter turnout. But the real reason the pair opposed midterms is because Republicans had done well in 2010 and were poised to do better in 2014.
It was typical progressive pap, pre-electoral sour grapes, not a serious proposal. But I have a proposal that is both serious and that advances the tenets of our representative republic – abolishing lame-duck sessions of Congress.
Though they may not seem like it sometimes, politicians are human. As humans, they are susceptible to the complete range of human emotions and foibles, including spite. Governance by spite is a threat to our ever-fragile republic.
From a practical standpoint, why should people whom voters unambiguously said they no longer wish to have represent them have two full months to do just that in every conceivable and legally binding way?
A constitutional amendment mandating that Congress end its session a week or a month before a federal election would help avoid the mess we’ve seen this week and eliminate massive omnibus spending bills larded with payoff pork.
Currently, Congress is supposed to complete the budget for the following fiscal year by the end of September, but that has happened only twice in the last 20-plus years. Since Congress didn’t do its duty this year, we have what we had this week: a massive bill no one read, stuffed with who knows what, that Congress pretty much has to pass.
But more importantly, it was voted on by many people voters threw out of office.
An incumbent losing on Election Day is the ultimate vote of “no confidence” from constituents. Its’ the electorate saying “We don’t like what you’ve done and do not want you voting on our behalf any longer.” Yet every member of the House and Senate who lost, either in their primary or the general election, did just that.
By constitutionally mandating a particular Congress end on, say, the first Friday of October in election years, those ugly votes on special interest-laden bills would end. Voters would have a more complete picture of what their particular representative or senator supports, and budgeting would return to regular order.
This would present other issues with which an amendment would have to deal; namely presidential abuse of power.
If we were guaranteed not to have narcissists more interested in their agenda, politics or their legacy, the honor system would suffice. Obviously we do not have such a guarantee. As such, some of the powers of the Executive Branch would have to be curtailed during this period as well.
No recess appointments would be allowed in the period, nor any pardons, new regulations or executive orders of any kind. Outgoing presidents, or those running for re-election, would be judged on what they did in the entirety of their term, for all intents and purposes. This would help keep the executive in check and stop Marc Rich-type pardons for sale. If a president “sold” or “bartered” a pardon at the end of his term, voters would have the opportunity to take out their anger on his party.
The way it stands now, politicians with “no skin in the game” have no constraints on their actions. There will always be Elizabeth Warrens in government—radical ideologues who voters of certain states would return even if they held a press conference while throwing live puppies into a woodchipper. But they are the exception, not the rule. For every Bernie Sanders, there are dozens of Eric Cantors. And there would be fewer of the former, more of the latter, should this idea come to pass.
Certain exceptions must be made for emergency scenarios, but those scenarios must be explicitly spelled out. War, and little else – perhaps a waiver should a supermajority of both houses of Congress and the president deem something urgent enough.
This would eliminate not only what we saw this week on the budget, but it would also eliminate the spiteful actions of Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-ISIS, toward the CIA. She didn’t pull her “recruitment for Islamo-fascists” anti-military, pro-progressive base stunt if she or her colleagues were soon to face voters. With no lame-duck session, Feinstein can’t run to the floor of the Senate and marinate herself in the absolute immunity she enjoys there with no reckoning or voter repercussions.
There’s not much I like in the British parliamentary system, but it does get a couple of things right. One is the question period, when prime ministers must answer to any members of Parliament who want to challenge them on anything. The other is their transition time. When a prime ministers’ party loses, the PM has 24 hours to vacate 10 Downing Street. One day and power is transferred. The will of the people reflected in one rotation of the Earth.
Such a quick turnaround isn’t possible or advisable here; there are virtues to a transition period. But a 2-month free hand so outgoing occupants can impose their rejected or term-limited will is equally ill-advised. As is a 2-month opportunity to act against the expressed will of the voters.
This isn’t unprecedented. Unless it fell on a Sunday, the inauguration of the president was held on March 4 for more than a century, as it was for Congress.
Congress, constitutionally, was required to have a lame-duck session, at least for one day. Article 1, Section 4, Clause 2 of the Constitution reads, “The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.” The 20th Amendment changed inaugurations from Jan. 20 for the president and Jan. 3 for Congress.
By amending the Constitution to reflect the reality that a vindictive and/or vanquished Congress or single member, or an outgoing president, could, after the voters have spoken, be free to enact anything against the will of the American people is, quite frankly, un-American. A carefully worded amendment, including necessary and very specific exceptions, would guard against this prospect in the future and force Congress to act in daylight so voters have the opportunity to hold them to account.